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Never . . . . . . . . phonics.

Before you read more, please think of a couple of words you would write between Never and phonics in the title of this post that reflect your beliefs about phonics.

Here are words others write on the dotted line between Never and phonics:

1 criticize
2 ignore
3 teach
4 neglect
5 encourage
6 forget
7 learn
8 disrespect
9 explain

My words are 3–teach–and 9–explain.

The word never of course is quite extreme. That is why there is a proverb that says “Never say never!”

In Small changes in teaching, big results in learning, I have chapters with these titles: Never explain grammar and Never explain vocabulary, thus not following the proverb by a long shot. If I were to revise Small changes I would add a section titled Never teach or explain phonics.

Why? Well first because I think we should always try the opposite of what we are doing so we can more clearly understand what we are doing and what effects what we are doing have. If you explain grammar all the time you cannot see what happens when you try using patterns in novel ways such as drawing sketches to represent all the words in a pattern and using the visuals to generate language.

In the same way if you stop teaching phonics and read to children as they follow in their copy the text or sing a song together again looking at the words in the text and later they are able to read the lines aloud correctly even though they contain sound letter correspondences that they have not covered in any phonics lesson you might realize that much can be read without phonics.

Also ask yourself how many phonics rules you could write before you started to teach phonics. And which phonics rules do you use as you read either silently aloud now that you have learned some phonics as you have started to teach phonics.

I have observed hundreds of students in Nigeria, Somalia,Togo, The Ivory coast and Senegal reading in English without one lesson in phonics. Many of these students came from homes where there were no reading materials and whose parents could not read. They each spoke their own language, often a second one from a group that lived nearby, French and English. One teacher in a class of 40 or so and often one book to share among 4.

My observations took place decades ago but I have not reason to think that the practices have changed much. Students learned to read by being read to and following and then reading in pairs.

Read and look up was a part of the practices in many schools.

In 1986 Kenneth Clark wrote an article called Reading: A psycholinguistic guessing game. Journal of the Reading Specialist 6, 126 to 135. Frank Smith in Understanding reading and Comprehension and reading expanded on Kenneth Clark’s work. Their ideas have been central to all of my writing.

Learning is predicting and using language and teaching is reminding people of what they already know and providing explicit feedback.

As I say many times in Small Changes and in workshops I do, believe nothing I say, or anyone else says. Try stopping what you regularly do for at last 50 percent of the time, longer if possible, and try alternatives and see what happens.

For years baby aspirins were prescribed for the elderly to lower the risk of heart and blood problems. Now the prescription has been taken away. Do not take baby aspirins.

I saw a cartoon in a recent issue of The New Yorker in which the doctor is telling the patient to take a lot of the prescribed supplement now because it might be found that it is useless soon and you will be told not to take the supplement that now is all the rage.

Copying below two pages on phonics by Frank Smith from one of his books I just mentioned.I think the title, The relevance of phonics is not quite right because it does not match the content. I would substitute another word for relevance, how about you?

Enjoy, enjoy


PS Henry Widdowson distinguishes between language in use and language usage. Language usage is having teachers explain grammar, phonics, vocabulary, discourse, etc. Language in use is of course using language–all four skills. John Dewey did not write about language learning but his admonition: we learn by doing fits the idea of using language.

The relevance of phonics

I make an issue of the decoding aspect of reaching because of the number of people, many of whom are involved in producing reading programs, who think a child could never learn to recognize a word unless he could use phonic rules to unlock its sound. But we all know that the first words a child reads are learned by the “whole word” method. He recognizes his own name and Mummy and Shell and Texaco and cornflakes long before he learns that m is pronounced /m/ and p /p/ (except when joined with h when it may be /f/. In fact children generally learn that m stands for /m/ because they know that /m/ is the sound at the beginning of words such as Mummy that start with m. Children learn phonics through reading, the do not learn to read through phonics That is why the best readers are always good at phonics—they keep ahead of the teacher.
A group of investigators at an educational research laboratory in California have published the results of a study in which they calculated how many “spelling-to-sound correspondence” rules would be required to account for the pronunciation of 6000 one- and two-syllable words in the spoken language vocabulary of six- to nine-year old children. A rule is required for each of the different sounds with which a particular letter or group of letters may be associated. One rule, for example, is required to account for the pronunciation of the letter p standing alone, while another is required for p in company with h. If a particular correspondence occurred relatively infrequently in their 6000 words, such as the /v/ sound in the word of, the researches called it an exception rather than a rule.
Even so, when they surveyed the fruits of their labors, the researchers found no less than 166 rules for spelling-to-sound correspondences—106 for vowels and 60 for consonants—although more than 600 of the most common words were still not completely accounted for. In addition the researchers found no rules which would help the learner select among the alternative rules that were applicable on many occasions; nor were rules found that would tell when a word was to be regarded as an exception. Some rules could not be applied unless the appropriate intonation of the word had already been determined or a decision had been made about its syntactic role (For example, whether permit was a noun or verb) or its morpheme structure (for example, the th in father and fathead). In other words, it is easy enough to apply phonic rules, provided you know what the word is in the first place.
I might add that most of the rules these researchers found apply only if the word is decoded backwards. You cannot even decide whether p, g or k should be pronounced, for example, unless you first determine if they are followed by an n (pneumonia, gnash, know), and we all know how a silent e at the end of words affects what comes before.
Almost all common words are exceptions—of requires a rule of its own for the pronunciation of f.
The game of finding exceptions is too easy to play. I shall give only one more example to illustrate the kind of difficulty one must run into in trying to construct—or teach—reliable rules of phonic correspondence. How are the letters ho pronounced, when they occur at the beginning of a word? And here are eleven possible answers; all you will notice, quite common words: hope, hot, hoot, hook, hour, honest, house, honey, hoist, horse, horizon.
Of course, there are rules (or are some of them merely exceptions?) that can account for many of the pronunciations of ho. But there is one very significant implication in all the examples that applies to almost all English words—in order to apply phonic rules, words must be read from right to left. The way in which the reader pronounces ho depends on what comes after it, and the same applies to the p in ph the a in ate, the k in know, the t in –tion. The exceptions are very, very few, like asp and ash which are pronounced differently if preceded by a w, and f, pronounced /v/ only if preceded by o. The fact that sound “dependencies” in words run from right to left is a obvious difficulty for a beginning reader trying to sound out a word from left to right, or for a theorist who wants to maintain that words are identified on a left-to-right basis
In summary, English is far from predictable as far as its spelling-sound relationships are concerned. Just how much can be done to predict the pronunciation of a relatively small number of common words with a finite number of rules we shall see in a moment. But before I conclude this catalogue of complications and exceptions, two points should be reiterated. The first point is that phonic rules can only e considered as probabilistic, as guides to the way words might be pronounced, and that there is rarely any indication of when a rule does or does not apply. The rule that specifies how to pronounce ph in telephone falls down in the face of haphazard, or shepherd, or cuphook. The role for oe in doe and woe will not work for shoe. The only way to distinguish the pronunciation of sh in bishop and mishap, or th in father and fathead, is to know the entire word in advance. The probability of being wrong if you do not know a word at all is very high. Even if individual rules were likely to be right three times out of four, there would still be only one chance in three of avoiding error in a four-letter word.

Frank Smith

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